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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 23, 2023

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Why did the Men of Country Music Lose their Mojo?

Epistemic Status: Elaborate inside joke with myself from spending too long riding in a truck listening to country radio.

I grew up with a certain country music cliche, that every straitlaced city girl wanted to cut loose and ride a dirt road with a country boy. Trace Adkins made it clear that Ladies Love Country Boys; Kenney Chesney’s woman [] Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy and is always staring at him when he’s chugging along; Big and Rich saddled up their horses and rode into the city, where the girls shouted Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy; Joe Diffie found that all you needed was an F150 because women loved a Pickup Man; even mr sunshine on my god damn shoulders John Denver’s the Cowboy and the Lady and country godfather Johny Cash’s If I were a Carpenter play to the same trope.

Today our swaggering country hero has been replaced at the top of the charts with soulful bittersweet songs by small town men who lost their upwardly mobile girls to the city life.

Country megastar Morgan Wallen’s More than My Hometown dominated country radio so hard it even charted on the Billboard 100. The lyrics reflect a man left behind by a woman who loved him, but had ambitions for bigger things than he could give her.

Girl, our mamas are best friends and so are we

The whole town's rooting for us like the home team

Most likely to settle down

Plant a few roots real deep and let 'em grow

**But we can't stop this real world from spinnin' us

Your bright lights called, I don't blame you for pickin’ up**

Your big dream bags are all packed up and ready to go

But I just need you to know …

I ain't the runaway kind, I can't change that

My heart's stuck in these streets like the train tracks

City sky ain't the same black …

'Cause I can't love you more than my hometown

**Yeah, you got a wild in your eyes that I just wasn't born with

I'm a same gas station cup of coffee in the mornin’**

I need a house on the hill, girl, not in 'em

So hang onto these words 'til them avenues help you forget ‘em

23 by Sam Hunt follows the same storyline a few years down the road (as does Wallen’s own Seven Summers

You can marry an architect

Build you a house out on the water

That really impresses your father, yeah

And you can find some grown-up friends

Drink some wine in California ...

No matter where I go, no matter what I do

I'll never be 23, with anyone but you

You can marry who you want

Go back to Tennessee

But you'll never be 23 with anyone but me

We'll always have Folly Beach

We'll always have Delta nights

We'll always be in between real love and real life

**You can ride the train to work

Straighten out your accent in the city

Like your folks ain't from Mississippi, yeah

You probably got an office view

Wearing those skirts you always hated

Yeah, you're so sophisticated**

But I bet you when you drink too much

I bet you think about back then

I really hope you're happy now

I'm really glad I knew you then

Looking at the lyrics, there’s a common trope of an ambitious young woman leaving her country fried boyfriend behind. He was fun while he lasted, but she wanted more from life and he didn’t, she left town he stayed, she wanted bright lights and office views and drinking wine with grown up friends while he wanted gas station coffee with the same buddies he had from high school. Note that neither singer really denies the objective superiority of the city life, or puts in much effort to defending small town worldview, they simply agree to disagree with their lost loves.

The swaggering songs I grew up with reflected a world where the working class country white man was dominant, resurgent culturally. Country music’s crossover popularity reflected it: singers like Alan Jackson and Toby Keith and Shania Twain hit it big, country dominated charts in a way it hadn’t before and wouldn’t since. The cities were hollowed out, the downtowns emptied, the exurbs were being built. The exurbs culturally identified themselves with rural, more than urban, values. Cultural creation is about distinguishing oneself from others, after White Flight they wished to distinguish themselves from the city they left, and with the rural areas they colonized. The suburban dad, the kind who buys a John Deere baseball cap to go with his lawn mower and hoped his wife thought it was sexy, that was the core country music consumer. That was the man who listened to Big and Rich and could imagine himself as “the only John Wayne left in this town;” and who wouldn’t trade his "Silverado for [the city’s] Escalade or your freak parade.” The kind of guy who bought an F-150 crew cab with a sparkling clean bed and fancied himself a “pickup man.” The music reflected a confidence, a swagger, the country man was sexually potent, a real man not like the effeminates and freaks from the city.

The dynamics of the 2020s’ give us these Sad Working Class Boy country songs. The SWCB is Nashville’s interpretation of the zeitgeist, which reflects material reality: women now hold 3% more degrees, and represent 56% of the current tertiary student population. A 56-44 gender gap of degrees means a huge percentage of men without degrees see women they should be dating, women they may have dated in their carefree teens and twenties, they see these women become upwardly mobile while they do not. This is reflected in populations. In NYC, LA, and Chicago there are 10 adult women for every 9 adult men. Those women came from somewhere, and they left men behind, they left the SWCBs behind, in their rural and exurban hometowns.

The SWCB song taps into a deep vein of truth for millions of Americans who lived that story. Women who dated men they knew in high school or still too young to worry about marriage, “in between real love and real life.” Couples that enjoyed spending time together, but ultimately were unable to bridge the gap between their competing ambitions and lifestyles. The country singer, and audience he embodies, has drifted from being the irresistible object of attraction, to being good enough to bed but not good enough to wed. The swaggering blare of Big and Rich handing out hundred dollar bills has been replaced by the lament of a himbo grisette in a cowboy hat for young female yuppies. Inevitably left behind when his novelty fades, left with memories but no ring in his small hometown.

The traditional character of the Grisette, a young working class girl that the Parisian artist or bourgeois student would have an affair with in his youth before abandoning her for a proper marriage to a woman of his class, provides the clearest parallel to the SWCB. Fontine in Les Miserables is probably the character most likely to ring a bell for the audience here. Where in 18th-19th century Paris, when men had sexual freedom and women were repressed, working class women were used for pleasure and then thrown away; today when women have sexual freedom working class boys are used and then thrown away. Good enough for now, not good enough for forever.

Maybe the transition song is Kenny Chesney’s All the Pretty Girls:

All the seventeen's said, "I'm getting outta dodge"

All the big dreams said, "I'm selling all I got"

All the high rollers busy placing their bets

Me, I'm heading south, 'cause all the pretty girls said

I'm home for the summer, shoot out the lights

Don't blow my cover, oh I'm free tonight

The questions ask themselves: the pretty girls are “home for the summer” from college while Kenny just stayed in his hometown. They still want to hang out, but eventually they won’t, the story goes from In Love with the Boy to All the Pretty Girls to 23. Kenny should have hit the books, then maybe they would have stayed together.

A quick google search of the newer songs you reference reveals they are all "co-written" by the referenced artists. All the other co-writers are professional industry vets: song writers and arrangers who work mostly in pop music, which modern country is a sub genera of. The co-writer credits for the performer are usually a legal/financial arrangement. Its very likely they had little to no creative input in these songs, though I could be wrong I don't think I am. While modern pop-country likes to tie itself to older country artists and imply a continuity, on the business side there is very little. What there is is much more related to Conway Twitty than Johnny Cash. FWIW I am a huge fan of original country western and old time music but I start to fall off when they started adding string sections (not fiddles, which are pure) and horns in the 60s.

Country still sells records and makes money off of it. Standard pop less so and rock has been dead from a music-business point of view for a while. Like any business they want reliable output that moves units and sells tickets. The trend you're seeing is not anything driven by performers or fans, its professional pop songwriters. The same sort of people that write songs for Taylor Swift. Probably some of the exact same people.

The sort version of this is that country songs were a lot more complementary of the performer when they were actually written by the performers, which they largely aren't anymore. Modern country is pop music with accents, slide guitars and rural themes.

The underlying phenomenon driving the More than my Hometown/23 vibe (that rural-to-urban migration is now a mostly-female phenomenon except where strong patriarchy prevents this, and that one of the drivers is that women do not want to end up as farmers' wives) is global - Fred Pearce's Peoplequake is where I read about it, but is now probably out of date. But that ground truth hasn't changed over the timescale you are looking at with the change in the vibes of Country lyrics, so the vibe shift you are looking at is probably driven by something else. Someone more familiar than I am with fine-grained US economic data could probably confirm if it is the same rise in economic anxiety in rural and small-town America that drove the rise of Trump - the dates superficially match up.

  • Ladies Love Country Boys strongly implies that the male lead got off the farm and met the Yankee chick while they were both undergraduates at one of the SEC party schools.
  • In Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy the male lead is mostly attractive because he is rich, with the source of funds never specified.
  • Cowboy and the Lady is about a "cowboy" so far from the ranch that he is wearing a rhinestone-studded suit and cowboy boots in an airport business class lounge (and is also wearing a hat indoors, which would be a faux pas for an actual cowboy-with-a-hint-of-class).
  • If I were a Carpenter shouldn't really be on the list - the Carpenter is asking the question to the Lady with no particular expectation of getting the answer "Yes".

That leaves Thinks my Tractor's Sexy and Pickup Man as songs that portray rural lower-middle class men as sexy. And Thinks my Tractor's Sexy is very definitely about a country boy attracting the attention of a country girl - it isn't claiming that a "lady" would find the tractor sexy.

So the Country-is-sexy vibe was about the aesthetic of Country being the sexy icing on a cake which consists of money and status. All the Pretty Girls is getting at something similar, but without the cake - the pretty girls find the country boys superficially attractive and want to have some illicit sex with them before heading off to pursue lives elsewhere, and the country boys know that illicit sex is the only kind on offer so they sneak past the cops to get it. And of course this is in the general context of a genre which disdains outlawry and has lots of songs about people and their families ruined by breaking the law and ignoring basic sexual morality - so by the rules of Country music this is an account of systemic failure, not a "we cucked the white-shoe boys" brag.

FWIW (my exposure to Country is limited to what I hear at the house of a relative whose gateway drug was Dolly Parton), I think Hlynka is right and it was the swagger that was aberrational, not the maudlin.

It's fascinating how different our interpretations of the same song lyrics are. I always thought of the male lead in Ladies Love Country Boys as a townie from around Charlottesville or Durham or Chapel Hill, who the female law student ends up dating. Many such cases. Meanwhile, Rich is attractive because he's rich, Big is attractive because...and I always kind of pictured them as Texas ranchers or something.

so by the rules of Country music this is an account of systemic failure, not a "we cucked the white-shoe boys" brag.

That's a weird perception of country music. Even the old guys of country are Outlaw Country types these days, long gone are the Louvin Brothers who were playing genuine gospel music. Country music's average morality is closer to Toby Keith for the past decade or so. I'm counting at least two dozen songs on the top 100 that are about premarital or extramarital sex. Certainly country makes room for marital love and family in a way that other popular genres don't, but it hardly frowns on premarital sex anymore.

American country is simply obviously trying to reach the lyrical heights of Finnish rural-themed music. (I'm linking to the Nightwish cover because it has English lyrics, the folksier original is here.

NYC, LA, and Chicago there are 10 adult women for every 9 adult men.

I always wonder what that difference is for say 22 to 34 year olds.

Tbh I suspect that stat to be bullshit for different reasons; huge percentages of the urban underclass are imprisoned, the stereotype is that ghettoes are emptied out of prime age men. If I moved to NYC, the availability of a vast quantity of women in the worse parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx doesn't really matter to me one way or the other, what would matter is the gender balance in my social circle.

Why did the Men of Country Music Lose their Mojo?

Did they? Last I checked Luke Combs was still the King of the country charts.

I guess what I'm saying is that I get what you're saying but I question the premise. I don't see this as an aberration or anyone "loosing thier mojo" so much as returning to one's roots. Country as a genre has always had a strong "maudlin streak". It's why David Allan Coe's comedy bit about writing "the perfect country song" is so funny and has been covered by so many people (including legends like Willie Nelson and Waylan Jennings). I would argue that it was actually the optimism of the more "pop" country singers like Chesney and Adkins that represented a distinct departure from genre norms rather than the inverse.

Ironically it seems to me that one of the major appeals country music, especially in this day and age, is that it's one of the few art forms/genres where men and women are allowed to be emotionally vulnerable and sincere. (Ex A and B)

For all it's talk of emancipation, secular liberal culture seems to have very little tolerance for sentimentality.

Did they? Last I checked Luke Combs was still the King of the country charts.

Comparing the two, I'd put Wallen ahead, but not by a ton. Wallen had the top two in 2022; on this week's chart Wallen has two top 10s and Combs has one*, while Jelly Roll is currently ahead of both. Wallen has ten in the 100, Combs has six. Combs has the better voice, by far, which is why he's able to carry a cover like Fast Car to a hit.

As an aside, the attempt to make a controversy over Fast Car was the single funniest tempest in a CW teapot this year. Chapman's reaction to various assholes complaining that her song had made it to the chart was, at best, confused given the amount of money she was suddenly making from the Combs cover:

The 59-year-old said, “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.'” Chapman also celebrated being the first Black woman to be a song’s sole writer to top the chart since its debut in 1990. After her statement, Combs responded, “That’s the gift of a supernatural song writer. The success of my cover is unreal and I think it’s so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones. I love that she is out there feeling all the love and that she gave me a shout-out! Thank you, Tracy!”

Reminds me of the ‘higher education is for women’ trope- the only acceptable future that can be pushed for women coming out of high school is going to university and seeking a professional class job. Young men, of course, you can tell them to think seriously of joining the military or learning a trade, but don’t you dare advocate anything for women other than university to PMC. Now to some extent this is because parents don’t like to think about their daughters doing dangerous things(getting shot at, working on an Alaskan crab boat) and the trades are not a very friendly workplace for women, other than the butchest lesbians, but see below.

Heck, even the ‘Emily’ ad recruiting for the US army- lots of people missed this for the woke crap about lesbian parents and fighting for equality, but what I noticed was she went to college and then joined the army. Motteizeans who were in the military, sound off- how many enlisted showed up with education beyond high school, let alone a degree? I am not under the impression it was many at all, although I meet plenty of veterans who enlisted and then got a degree.

There is simply a cultural value in the USA where all women must go to college, otherwise they’re going to become either trailer-trash loser single mother fast food workers whose kids don’t share a dad, or horribly oppressed homemakers beaten by their hypocrite alcoholic husbands. I don’t think this is the IRL norm for working class women, although yes they’re more likely to be beaten or be single mothers than degree holding women, but the cultural prejudice is real.

Yeah. My parents figured that both me and my sister would go to college. They cautioned me against joining the military because of leftist disagreements with US foreign policy; they cautioned my sister extra hard. They were fine with her trying to become an ironworker or something if she wanted, though. IDK how an athletic average size woman pulls off working on an Alaskan crab boat, but if she did, more power to her, she's a badass.

Young men, of course, you can tell them to think seriously of joining the military or learning a trade

I am about as far from the target audience of the messaging as possible, but my impression is that (apart from the specific appeal to the Violent Class discussed by JTarrou, which only the USMC really features in its messaging) the "join the military" message is a combination of:

  • Enlist in the military as a career with prospects, and chase NCO promotions which (although they don't tell you this) will de facto require you to pick up a degree via distance learning to get the promotion points you need.
  • Enlist in the military in order to get GI Bill money to pursue a degree after you get out.

So I don't think the military (apart from USMC grunt) is sold as an alternative pathway to getting a degree, more as a better route to a degree for less-bookish more-masculine men compared to going to a 4-year college straight out of HS.

There certainly was a message of enlist in the military to figure your shit out, get benefits for life, and learn a trade that you don’t necessarily need college for, at least when I was in middle and high school. There was also a travel the world for cheap angle and an appeal to patriotism angle.

VA loans featured in recruitment ads as much as the GI bill did when I was young.

I think it’s this. Culture is saying the quiet parts out loud and the blue collar lifestyle is now seen as undesirable. Either the people themselves are unacceptable (racist, stupid, poor, and so on), or the life itself is seen by the cultural elites as much less than modern exurbs have to offer (mostly fake-authentic foods, night clubs, wine stores, and the option of more culturally acceptable jobs). I don’t think it’s a jobs thing entirely as the vast majority of women I know with college degrees end up in education or other casually full time jobs that allow regular time off and don’t interfere too much with domestic duties.

Although I will say that another part of this is that country singers lost their mojo because they now accept their cultural inferiority— even country artists see the country as old-fashioned places that used to be good where you used to be able to get the good life. Compare that to hip hop and even people rapping about the inner city are talking about fast cars, drugs and alcohol, good times and loose women. They still see their culture as good, something worth embracing.

Great post, and thanks for reminding me of a different song of the same name I used to listen to constantly and haven't heard for years.